A Brutal Backlash
For parents whose children die, there is crushing grief and guilt. Sometimes, there are also serious legal repercussions. In 49 percent of all hot-car deaths, charges were filed against the adults who left the child in the car; 81 percent of those cases resulted in a conviction.
There is also, unfailingly, judgment and blame from the media, friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers. When Parents published a short article on this topic online last August, many mothers posted outraged comments, such as these: "Irresponsible people trying to make excuses!" "People who do forget [their kids] should get their priorities straight." "Ummm, here is the deal. DON'T FORGET YOUR KID IN THE FREAKING CAR! There is no good excuse for being a bad parent!" And even this: "I am suspicious that these parents might have committed this crime as an easy way to lose unwanted children."
Beneath this harsh judgment is a desire for self-protection, explains Janet Brown Lobel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City and Pleasantville, New York. "The idea of forgetting a child in a car is such a horrifying prospect for parents that the only way they can deal with it is to make themselves feel as different as possible from the parent who did this," she says. "That parent becomes a neglectful parent with whom you have nothing in common. Therefore, you don't have to think about this tragedy because it could never happen to you."
Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, a national nonprofit focused on keeping children safe in and around vehicles, agrees: "People try to demonize these parents. The logic goes: 'These people are monsters. I'm not a monster, so it won't happen to me,' and that is the biggest mistake anyone can make."
A month before Jenna was born, Jodie Edwards saw a news story on TV about a baby who had died after being left in a hot car. Although she had checked out stacks of books from the library in preparation for motherhood and paid special attention to the chapters on safety, the heatstroke story didn't worry her. "I didn't think it was a safety issue I would be vulnerable to," she says.
Nicolle Holmes-Gulick, a 33-year-old mother in Shoreline, Washington, was just as safety-conscious: "the kind of parent people relax around because I'm the one watching their kids like a hawk," as she puts it. But one afternoon in August 2013, her house was more chaotic than usual. Her mother was there and her sister, with her two young children, had just arrived from out of town for a visit. Holmes-Gulick had to get her 13-year-old daughter to her first cheerleading practice of the season, and the clock was ticking. She'd been planning to leave her 21-month-old daughter, Presley, with her mother, but the toddler was fussy, so she wound up taking her too. "Two minutes after we started down the road, Presley fell asleep," Holmes-Gulick recalls. "And when we got there my oldest said, 'You have to come with me. It's my first day.'"
So she got out of the car and walked to the park with her older daughter. "I talked to the coach and the other mothers," she recalls. "Then one of my girlfriends asked me, 'Where's Presley?'" Horrified, Holmes-Gulick shouted, "Oh my God, I forgot my baby!" She ran to the car to find Presley sweaty and screaming. The little girl was fine -- but Holmes-Gulick wasn't. "I cried about 20 times that day," she says. Presley was in the car for eight minutes on an 85°F day, and Holmes-Gulick knows what could have happened if her friend hadn't said something. Being as cautious as she was, she never dreamed that could happen to her.
She's also amazed by how many other parents have told her they've done something similar. "When I talk with my friends about it, everybody opens up," she says. "People are insecure about their parenting and they aren't going to say 'I did that' until someone else does. This happens to a lot more people than we think."
When Sophia Cavaliero died, her father was questioned by police. Charges were never filed against him, but that didn't provide much solace. "I thought, 'It doesn't matter where you put me or what you do to me. I'll live with this horror every single minute of every day and there's nothing you can do to me that will be worse than this,'" says Cavaliero.
He never thought he would learn to manage his grief. But he's getting there, with the help of his wife, who never blamed him, and supportive family and friends. He and Kristie are now the parents of 20-month-old twin girls.
Jodie Edwards wasn't charged either, but that didn't ease her grief in the least. "I have a sadness that will always be there. I just miss Jenna," she says.
When she was waiting to be interviewed by the police, there was a part of her that wanted the ground to open up and swallow her. "I wanted to die," she says, "but I couldn't." She had a 3-year-old son to take care of. "I refused to let his life be ruined by this, so I made a commitment right then to do whatever I could to be a healthy parent for him." Her son is now 8 and has another sister and brother, ages 4 and 2 1/2 . "They're all beautiful and happy. And they know about Jenna," Edwards says.
"We have pictures of her all over the house," she says. "We talk about her all the time and make sure she's a part of every celebration in some way." Every year on Jenna's birthday, they do something they think she would have liked at the age she would've been. Two years ago they visited a butterfly garden; last year it was the zoo.
But Edwards believes that the greatest tribute she can make to her firstborn daughter is to do everything she can to raise awareness of how she died -- and to help other parents understand that they could make the same mistake she did, even if they think it's impossible. "I thought love would make me immune to such a tragedy," she says. "But it didn't."
7 Ways to Not Forget Your Child
"We all spend a great deal of time and money to childproof our home," says Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org. "We need to childproof our car with the same care." She advises taking multiple steps to make sure you always remember your child in the car:
1. Be extra alert if your routine changes. That's when the risk of unintentionally leaving your child in your car increases.
2. Put something of your child's, like a toy, on the front seat.
3. Leave an item you'll need at your next destination in the backseat -- like your cell phone, purse, or briefcase.
4. Place your child's car sear in the middle of the backseat rather than behind the driver. It's easier to see the kid.
5. It's crucial to set up a system with your child-care provider, as the parents in this story can attest. If you don't plan to drop off your child that day, call her. If the child doesn't arrive as expected, have the caregiver call you.
6. Discuss the topic of hot-car deaths with every person who drives your child anywhere. This includes partners, grandparents, and babysitters.
7. Always "Look Before You Lock." Get in the habit of checking the backseat every time you get out of the car.
Finally, if you see any child in a car seat alone in a car, call 911.
Hotter Than You Realize
This is how quickly the temperature inside a vehicle rises on a 70°F day, based on research by Jan Null, department of earth and climate sciences, San Francisco State University. Null also found that keeping the windows open slightly had little effect and that car interiors with darker colors heat up faster.
After 10 minutes = 89°F
After 20 minutes = 99°F
After 30 minutes = 104°F
After 60 minutes = 113°F
After 2 hours = 120°F
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Parents magazine.
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